Ornamental grasses fit seamlessly into almost any garden design. They provide interest in the garden as they wave, shimmer, and rustle in the wind. Ornamental grasses put on multi-season displays, and are very low-maintenance.
The grasses may need to be watered during drought, and need to be cut down in the spring. Most ornamental grasses have genetic ties to the prairie, which means they have very deep root systems and are tolerant of prolonged moist or dry conditions. These grasses are virtually disease and pest resistant. Even deer tend to avoid them.
When planted en masse, they can create privacy screens, shape a special nook in the garden, or soften a wall or fence. Ornamental grasses can create a dramatic accent, add structure and softness, and can make nice backdrops or borders depending on the variety. When planted on slopes, they provide great erosion control.
I remember when I was first introduced to ornamental grasses in my initial horticulture course with Dr. Rowe at Michigan State University. At that time, I didn’t know why anyone would purposely design with grass, since I was mostly trying to keep grass out of the garden beds. Dr. Rowe suggested we become familiar with ornamental varieties, predicting that ornamental grasses would be used in gardens long-term. He introduced us to the ornamental grass display gardens, and I instantly fell in love with them.
While there are many varieties to choose from, here are a few of my favorites:
Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’
This feather reed grass is one of the most popular ornamental grasses. This grass has narrow, dark green leaves, and produces tan plumes in early summer. The ‘Karl Foerster’ grass grows straight and upright, making it a great architectural element, even in winter. This variety grows 6’ tall and 1-2’ wide.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’
Also known as maiden grass, it has narrow, green, arching foliage with a silver midrib. This grass makes a perfect backdrop to showcase other perennials. Dramatic silvery plumes rise above the foliage in late summer and last well into winter. Foliage grows 4’-6’ tall, and flowers can reach 8’ in height.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’
Commonly known as porcupine grass, this grass is noted for its dramatic, horizontally-banded foliage and upright habit. The erect leaf blades resemble porcupine quills. The foliage grows 5-6’ tall, with reddish plumes that appear in late summer reaching 8-9.’
Commonly called blue oat grass, this very showy ornamental grass features steel blue leaf blades in graceful round clumps. Resembling blue fescue (Festuca Glauca) but growing significantly larger, this cultivar grows 2’ tall with bluish brown flowers 3’ tall appearing in mid-summer.
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’
A cultivar of fountain grass, ‘Hameln’ is a great compact grass that produces silvery bottle brush like flowers in late summer. The plumes gracefully arch outward from the clump, resembling water spraying from a fountain. Growing 1.5-2.5’ tall, the foliage of this plant turns a golden yellow in the fall. There are many fountain grass cultivars available that range in height from 1-5’, featuring different flower colors. ‘Hameln’ is my personal favorite.
Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’
A cultivar of switch grass, ‘Shenandoah’ features some of the best burgundy-red foliage of the many panicum cultivars. Foliage emerges bluish-green but rapidly turns burgundy-red (by late June) to form a compact, narrow, erect, 3′ tall clump of foliage which is topped in summer by finely-textured, reddish-pink flower panicles, which hover over the foliage like an airy cloud.
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ and ‘All Gold’
Also known as Japanese Forest grass, this is a graceful, colorful groundcover grass for shaded borders and container gardens. The cascading leaves resemble the shape of some types of bamboo.
‘All Gold’ is a more compact cultivar featuring bright golden yellow leaves. It typically grows to 14″ tall and will spread over time to 18″ wide.
‘Aureola’ is a golden-striped form of Hakone grass. It is a rhizomatous, deciduous perennial grass that typically grows in dense spreading clumps to 15” tall and features gracefully arching green leaves variegated with gold longitudinal striping.
Every garden can be enhanced with ornamental grasses to provide four seasons of interest. With so many varieties available, The Plant Professionals would like to help you find the grasses that will suit your garden style and growing conditions.